First Responder Technologies

Jun 15, 2012

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Changing Culture in Changing Times 
A fundamental culture shift is taking place among First Responders (police, fire, and emergency medical services personnel) as they seek to adopt and adapt the technology tools and applications that can affect all aspects of their ability to serve the communities they are sworn to protect.

The Culture Change
Unlike a decade ago, when the most common form of technology a responder might readily identify was their push-to-talk radio, today almost every responder has an abundance of diverse technology-based tools and myriad applications to support them.

In a study currently underway, the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance (CATA) is working with the Emergency Responder Testing and ­Evaluation Establishment (ERTEE, formerly the Canadian Police Research Centre), the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police, the Canadian Association of Fire Chiefs, the Emergency Medical Services Chiefs of Canada, and over a dozen first responder groups from across the country, to conduct a national technology capability assessment. This study has identified over 100 different technologies that responders use in the line of duty.

While many of the technologies identified, in areas such as Administration (payroll, scheduling, fleet management) and Personal Protection (body armour, respiration protection, non-lethal tools), were considered important, the longest list and items providing the greatest challenges are those related to information management (IM) and information and communication technology (ICT) needs.

There can be no doubt that IM and ICT are changing the way first responders operate at every level within their organizations. Changes are occurring through tangibly realized efficiencies in operations but also in how they communicate and interact among themselves and with the public they serve.

Gone are the days when only the privileged few had access to advanced technology in the form of pagers, PDAs, desktop PCs or cell phones. Today, almost every member of the Force owns a smartphone and/or tablet for ­personal use and many bring them to work and deploy them in the field.

Far from making the job easier, these developments have caused serious concerns regarding the appropriateness of the use of these devices in the workplace and the potential impact on privacy, security and accountability. Today’s young constable will be as likely to text message pertinent information to a citizen (one who is just as amenable to receiving information this way) versus sending a form letter through snail mail. Yet, from a chain-of-evidence or ­procedural point of view, how does one track/record this activity? If the smartphone is needed for evidence, what are the ramifications on the otherwise non-related personal information stored on the device? Many Forces are faced with the need to develop strict guidelines ­limiting their use, and this is one of the drivers spurring the coming technological revolution among the responder community.

While not entirely split upon generational lines, there is an obvious disparity in comfort levels and acceptance of use. In areas such as social media, tweeting, texting, instant messaging, and expectation of online access/processes, younger officers are likely to be much more frustrated at the lack of adoption than their seniors.

Further fuelling this cultural shift are public expectations regarding accessibility and live, real-time communications with the responders that serve them. Responders cite the “CSI effect” in which public expectations are artificially heightened based on the non-real-time depiction of cutting edge technology and which may not even be available to many response units. As a result of the explosive growth of smartphone usage and an “app-for-that” mentality combined with the prevalence of social media platforms, ­citizens now hold high expectations that immediate conversations can take place, and that real-time information will be relayed to them during a crisis using an array of common communication devices and platforms.

The general public would be justifiably shocked to learn that, all too often, fire, police and EMS personnel in the same city cannot speak to one another on-scene unless they swap radios first!

Changing Times
At a recent Economics of Policing conference, it was evident that a growing realization was developing among Responders that, unlike in the past, waiting for a return to status quo is simply not going to work in weathering the global economic realities of today. The days of expanding budgets and ad-hoc purchasing and acquisition are long gone.

Presumably, the procurement and implementation of technology will become more strategic as responders seek to become even more capable of adopting new efficient technologies.

There is a growing realization that economies of scale could be realized through more disciplined, multi-agency procurement approaches. This could be supported by a national body responsible for establishing standards, best-practices and possibly certification levels for technological solutions that have been proven to meet operational requirements. Such potential savings and standards are currently being lost through a lack of coordination and inter-agency ­sharing.

Responders are also recognizing the need to break down the silos – to move from a ‘need to know’ to a ‘need to share’ mindset. This goes beyond the need to speak more openly with one another and other supporting agencies, to communicating with the vendor community as well.

Traditionally, and very likely still the case for many responders today, meeting one-on-one with a vendor was considered taboo and could be perceived as “cavorting with the enemy.” Understandably, given First Responders’ positions of public trust, any possible appearance of impropriety in the procurement process must be allayed. However, the restrictive culture of complete avoidance of potential vendors that has heretofore been the standard, is slowly changing. In fact, responders are now realizing that by not communicating with vendors, they render a disservice, both to the company seeking to support them through an innovative solution, as well as to themselves, since this knowledge vacuum limits their own understanding of the full range of technology options available to them. They also miss out on potential private-public partnerships that could ­otherwise develop. In most cases, vendors would welcome responder collaboration in the co-development of new products or to explain precisely what is needed to ensure the development of products that will perform the necessary functions. 

Innovative Settings and Approaches
To create a setting where open dialogue among ­vendors and responders can take place, CATA has partnered with the Canadian Interoperability Technology Interest Group (CITIG) to form the First Responder Vendor Outreach Forum. Now in its fifth year, the annual two-day Forum combines ­plenary sessions with a “Dragon’s Den” approach that provides an effective and neutral meeting ground for first responders to openly reveal their technology opportunities and challenges, while providing a ­vehicle for the most innovative solutions to be shared among a core group of response ‘investors’ using a boardroom presentation format. These Forums have been cited by many senior responders as changing their views on the benefits of speaking with Industry, and have helped spark much of the cultural change taking place today.

With an eye to the future, the looming acquisition of 10 MHz of the 700 MHz spectrum recently provided to Canada’s public safety community for the development of a national broadband public safety network is adding to the urgency for change. Described as the single largest national undertaking since the development of the national rail system, this will effectively allow first responders to “own” the communications landscape on which to build their mission critical data (and potentially one day voice) communication needs to the exact specifications they require.

Working alongside partners at Public Safety Canada’s Interoperability Development Office, Defence Research and Development Canada, Canadian Security and Safety Partnership, CITIG, ERTEE, the three Chiefs Associations, Federation of Canadian Municipalities, and many others, CATA has been helping to define the national entity required to own this spectrum, set national interoperability ­standards, and define the technology architecture required to achieve a truly national system-of-systems network – offering seamless, dedicated LTE broadband capability. This august body has been working diligently towards building the case for why a second 10 MHz of spectrum is still required, and will present their arguments in the pending round of ­Industry Canada’s consultations relating to this spectrum and planned auction.

In preparation, Canadian responders are proactively addressing technology opportunities and challenges. For example, instead of waiting for the full acquisition of the spectrum before testing and experimenting on what an LTE network can potentially provide, a First Responder LTE testbed is ­currently being developed in Ottawa under the ­stewardship of CATA subsidiary: the Networked Vehicle Association. This testbed is a true private-public partnership involving investment and sweat equity from a long list of government, first responders, academic and private sector organizations. It allows for the early development and testing of dynamic new technologies such as real-time video streaming to vehicles, interoperability testing, traffic clearing solutions, and many wireless applications still under consideration.

The promise of tomorrow’s technology is driving necessary culture changes today. The importance of interoperability standards and the benefits of shared procurement are clear. More than any other time in the past, fire, police and emergency medical services are working alongside one another to present a common front in a search for solutions to their common technology challenges. They are doing so in meetings with other key public safety stakeholders, politicians, and industry leaders, and assuming leadership roles in moving the technology yardstick ­forward within their respective fields.

Revolution can be simply described as the struggle between the past and the future. This requires development of shared national strategies that support local delivery needs.

For today’s responders, the challenge is to avoid the pitfalls of operating in silos and engendering a continued mistrust of private sector collaboration. Seek to embrace the concepts of achieving a truly interoperable future. Strive to encourage the continued adoption of technology through shared procurement and deployment techniques. And finally, help define and develop the technology requirements for the future through collaboration between governments, businesses and academia.  

Kevin Wennekes is VP Research at the Canadian Advanced Technology Alliance. Canada’s largest and oldest non-profit technology association, CATA is recognized as the voice of advanced technology industries in Canada and is a ­long-standing champion of the public safety and security technology community.
© FrontLine Security 2012